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What can mindfulness really do?

A good friend–I’ll call her Tandy here–is a huge fan of meditation.  She spends a good hour each day practicing “mindfulness.”  She credits her practice with a more calm demeanor, a faster-working brain and a healthier body.  She’s certainly not the first to do so.  Advocates of meditation claim myriad health benefits–and I know of more than a few ongoing clinical trials that are looking at the benefits of yoga and other meditative techniques on treatments for cancer and other chronic diseases.

Turns out Tandy–as well as the scores of other people who believe that meditation and mindfulness are having positive impact on their health–may be on to something.  A recent study by neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center have found that “mindfulness” may relieve chronic inflammation. The study was published in the Brain, Behavior and Immunity journal.

Melissa Rosenkranz, an assistant scientist at the center and lead author of the sutdy, compared two stress-reducing techniques.  The first was focused on health and involved nutritional information, walking, core-strengthening exercises and music therapy.  Basically, a lot of the stuff that is involved with common “mindfulness” techniques without actually invoking any of the “mindfulness” itself.  The second group got the same kind of information, but with a focus on meditation and “mindfulness.”  They then measured psychological stress in each participant–as well as immune and endocrine measures.  They also induced inflammation on the skin using a capsaicin cream.

What did Rosencrantz and her colleagues find?  While both techniques helped to reduce stress, the “mindfulness” approach was better at decreasing the inflammation.  It’s a result that may have some bearing on people who are suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. 

Of course, “mindfulness” isn’t the end-all-be-all.  Rosenkranz, in a press release for the study, was quoted as saying, “This is not a cure-all, but our study does show that there are specific ways that mindfulness can be beneficial, and that there are specific people who may be more likely to benefit from this approach than other interventions.”

What do you think?  Is “mindfulness” a viable treatment for chronic conditions?  Should doctors be suggesting it to their patients?

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